This is the final part of a three-series conversations with Nicholas Leong. In this third article, we talk to Nicholas about what it is like living in Kenya, the Kenyan culture, and his advice for people who are considering to travel to Africa. Read the first article here. Read the second article here.
The Kenyan Riders
Founded by Nicholas Leong
Interviewed by Daryl Lee
Can you tell us about your impression of Africa the first time you went there?
It was actually very good, because I went to a place in Kenya where they were producing something of global excellence. It is very rare to have your first introduction to Africa where the people you meet are all global standard bearers. So when I went there, almost everybody I met was a winner of something. They can actually do something that nobody else in the whole world could do. That was very inspiring. It was not the usual poverty that most people are introduced to when they go to Africa. My first impression of Africa was that those guys are incredible. They are going out there and they are winning everything. They are completely feared in the entire world. So you really have a lot of respect for these guys. Everywhere in the world people are trying to beat them. Countries are having labs and sport scientists working and trying to produce a Korean/Singaporean/Spanish marathon champion. They take all that science and they put it against these Kenyans who have nothing. They just turn up and they run, and the Kenyans are still winning. It was a very positive experience.
Is Kenya very different compared to other parts of Africa?
Yes. Africa is a huge continent, the second largest in the world. There is a huge amount of diversity. If you go to Kenya, it is going to be very different from Congo, or Nigeria, or Algeria. North Africa is generally considered Arabic. A lot of people do not actually think it is Africa. South Africa is very much like Australia. Some people do not consider it Africa either. So central Africa is what most people considered proper Africa, black Africa, or Sub-Saharan Africa. So if you include North and South Africa, it is a very diverse continent. Even if you do not include them, it is still very diverse.
Africa is very complex. I can start talking about the corruption, but it is going to put people off.
Are there elements that are common among the countries?
It is like the difference between Korea and Singapore. If you are an outsider, suppose a white or black guy, and you go to Korea and Singapore, we all kind of look the same. But if you are a Singaporean, you would think that I am very different from a Korean. We do not speak the same language. We have had a very different history.
You have lived in Iten, Kenya for a while now. How do the locals view you?
They all think I know kungfu.
(hahahahaha!) Now that is funny. Do you experience any sort of racism? Do they accept you into their community?
You will always be apart. You will never be one of them. They will always view you differently. That is normal. You have to accept that that is going to happen. You will always be an outsider. Other than that, it is all very cordial. I am well liked. I am slowly learning Swahili, but it is difficult because everybody speaks English there. I would say that English is spoken in Kenya with the frequency that it is spoken in Malaysia. Perhaps even a bit more than Malaysia. English is a very widely spoken language in Kenya. In the cities in Nairobi, it can actually be the first language a lot of the time.
Can you tell us more about the Kenyan culture?
It is difficult. There are positive and negative aspects of Africa. There are a lot of bad stuff going on there, but there are good stuff going on too. If I am trying to encourage people to go, there is a lot I can say. But at a next level, people need to actually come together to talk about overcoming all the deficiencies. That is the big thing about Africa. Africa is very complex. I can start talking about the corruption, but it is going to put people off. It is a massive problem. It is crazy, how you negotiate, and why it is even worth doing it. Different people will experience different difficulties. I am there because I think the Kenyan Riders is a very worthwhile project. I believe in this project. I believe that we are going to change history. Sports is about young people and there are a lot of young people in Africa. Africa has got a billion people in the continent. There is a huge amount of promise. If you go there to visit, it is all good. But if we are talking about working and living there, then you need to have more nuanced conversation.
Tell us about a memorable incident that happened when you were in Africa?
The thing that always strikes me is how ordinary things are when you are in such an extraordinary place like Iten. I will have a conversation with somebody on Wednesday. He doesn’t look special in any way. I will ask him what he is doing, and he will say that he is going to run the Frankfurt marathon on Sunday and break the world record. And I think to myself, “Wow, that is great man.” It feels so ordinary. So he disappears and on Sunday I’m in a café and I see him on live TV running. He reaches the finish line and he misses the world record by 4 seconds. The guy that I just saw a few days ago, he is live on TV. It is strange but it is incredible. Five days later I see him again and I congratulate him, and he says “Yeah yeah. I will get the world record the next time.” Everything is very casual, but when you actually sit back and think about it, it is incredible that I am in a place where these things happen. It is so common and expected here. That is memorable, and it is very encouraging as well. Because you would not expect this anywhere in the world, and you do not expect this especially from a place like Africa. You do not expect a real global excellence to come out of a place such as Africa, but it does.
What is one major advice you can give to Singaporeans looking to travel to Africa?
You cannot expect Africans to work like Singaporeans. You got to be patient.
They all think I know kungfu.
You got to relax. It is not as scary as people think it is. The cities tend to be dangerous, so you got to take care of yourself in the cities. Outside of the cities, you can go around with a fair amount of comfort and security, even taking public transport. You will be fine. But you cannot expect the kind of efficiency you get in Singapore. It is not going to happen.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
We live in a very dynamic world. The world changes all the time. Nokia was once number one in the world, and now they are in trouble. There was a time when Apple was struggling and their shares were selling at $4, and look at them now. It is a very dynamic world we live in. It is not about the methodologies. It is about having a vision of what the world is, and having a vision of yourself. All the methodologies that you use are incidental. They are not the important things. Take Barack Obama. All the things that he did for this first presidential campaign: Facebook, Twitter, and Social Media. It was a very radical idea then, but all of that were not important. What was important was that he had this idea of what he was, and he had this idea of what America was. It was different from the America a decade or two before. People are ready for this now, but it would have been inconceivable even just 5 years before he came along. Something new like that is possible almost everywhere now, but it is just more possible in Africa, because people have not gone there yet. Africa has got a lot of opportunities. A lot of things can happen there, but people do not give it a chance. They do not go there. They do not see very much of it. Africa is a really exciting place, man!
Nicholas Leong currently lives in Iten, Kenya. The Kenyan Riders recently competed in the Tour of Rwanda 2012, an International Cycling Tour covering 890.3 kilometers, held from 18th to 25th November 2012. Find out more on their Facebook page.